The butter trade was once so important to dairy farmers in Orange County, NY that the bank in Goshen, the county seat, printed its currency on yellow paper. Popularly known as “butter money,” this currency symbolized how significant the trade in butter was to dairy farmers in dairy regions across the state prior to the introduction of refrigerated railroad cars to ship raw milk, first using blocks of ice and then mechanical cooling.
The original shipment of milk from Orange County to New York City is believed to have taken place in the spring of 1842 via the New York & Erie Railroad. Prior to this raw milk could be transported only short distances by farm wagon.
Butter, however, could be transported to markets many miles from the farm or factory where it was produced. As symbolized by “butter money,” blocks of butter were once as good as gold.
Then Came Oleomargarine
Emperor Napoleon III of France, nephew of Napoleon I, once offered a prize to anyone who could come up with a cheap alternative to butter that could be consumed by the lower classes and armed forces and thereby preserve milk supplies. A chemist by the name of Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès took up the challenge and in 1869 patented a substitute for butter using beef fat and skimmed milk that came to be known as oleomargarine. This appellation is somewhat misleading.
Oleo is a refined caul fat taken from the thin inner membrane surrounding the internal organs of animals. The French used beef cattle, as did most American producers of oleomargarine until vegetable oil (mostly cottonseed oil) was first utilized by Henry W. Bradley of New York in 1871 and combined with animal fats. Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès mistakenly thought his discovery contained margaric acid and came up with “oleo-margarine” as the name for the new product. (Margaric acid, by the way, will attract Khapara beetles and cabinet beetles.)
At least fifteen oleomargarine factories operated in the United States by 1880, many of them located near Chicago’s meat-packing firms. Oleomargarine partisans promoted their product as good as butter and in many cases as genuine butter. In Life on the Mississippi (published in 1874), Mark Twain tells of an oleomargarine salesman he heard boasting: “You are going to see the day, pretty soon, when you can’t find an ounce of butter to bless yourself with.” The braggadocio of that salesman was not farfetched, for as oleomargarine sales increased, butter prices dropped. The dairy industry across the nation saw the handwriting on the wall and mounted an offensive against the cheaper substitute for butter.
Making the Sale of Oleomargarine Illegal
New York State dairy producers and their corporate partners took the lead in the war against oleomargarine by enacting a law in 1877 requiring that the fake substitute be labelled so that consumers were not misled. However, the labeling laws in the State of New York and in other states were not effectively enforced. Consumers still bought margarine because of its cheaper cost.
New York State, as did other dairy states, then introduced laws prohibiting the manufacture and wholesale distribution of oleomargarine. By 1884 New York State had a small army of inspectors to root out the illegal sale of bogus butter. It was now a crime against butter to market oleomargarine.
As in the days of Prohibition when the 18th Amendment prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol-based liquors, there were ways to circumvent the anti-oleomargarine laws. Oleomargarine could be bootlegged into New York State from places where its manufacture was not prohibited. I am reminded of my childhood growing up in Iowa. Housewives or their allies would travel into Iowa from Minnesota or Wisconsin, states with restrictive laws, and illegally carry oleomargarine home.
William Dempster Hoard (1836-1918) grew up on a farm near Stockbridge, Madison County, New York. He was a longtime promoter of the dairy industry in Wisconsin and the state’s 16th governor. Hoard fought a prolonged fight against the adulteration of milk at a time when diary farmers were paid according to the amount of butterfat in the raw milk they shipped to creameries that processed both milk and butter.
Hoard once said, “Nothing on earth, save the virtue of a woman, is more susceptible to scandal than butterfat.” The same might be alleged of the oleomargarine war with butter.
Pinch the Color Berry
Oleomargarine coming out of the vats it is produced in has an unappetizing pasty white near greyish color. In 1894 the U. S. Supreme Court ruled that states could prohibit the import of artificially colored margarine but not undyed margarine. Only the most undiscriminating consumer, so it was believed, would make the mistake of confusing the corpse-like looking margarine with real butter. To entice consumers into believing that oleomargarine was as good as butter, manufacturers tried various food dyes to make it look like butter. Some states mandated that margarine be dyed a bright pink or even purple so as not to have the consumer think was real butter. Others allowed a yellow food coloring agent.
I recall the yellow packet of good coloring that came with oleomargarine that we used in the Sernett household. Some folks had something called a “butter stomper” to mix in the dye, but we simply squeezed the small pellet of dye and mixed it in with our fingers (when mother wasn’t present) or with a wooden spatula (when she was in the kitchen). I don’t recall if any of us said of the finished product that it “tastes almost like butter.” Now margarine comes pre-colored.
The dairy lobby was so successful in the war against margarine that by 1886 it had persuaded congress to pass a federal law defining the chemical nature of butter and placing a two-cent per pound tax on oleomargarine. Subsequent legislation increased the tax and, in effect, treated the purveyors of yellow margarine as if they were trafficking in illicit drugs. Many dairy states went further, prohibiting the sale of oleomargarine altogether within their legal jurisdictions.
The federal government repealed the taxes on oleo in 1949 and 1950, but states with strong dairy lobbies held out. New York State, as did twelve other states, had repealed their anti-colored margarine laws by the end of 1953. Yellow margarine was illegal in Minnesota from 1885 until 1963. Wisconsin’s “oleo wars” finally ended in 1967.
When the Wisconsin ban on margarine was in effect, communities on the Wisconsin-Illinois border, such as Waukegan, Illinois, boasted pop-up stands where Wisconsinites could purchase margarine and bootleg it home. I remember seeing what were in effect “we have Oleo” signs on the Iowa side of the Iowa-Wisconsin border.
What explains the cessation of the fight against the sale of oleomargarine, colored or not? During the Second World War many Americans had a difficult time purchasing butter and became more accustomed to the taste of oleomargarine. The public became less persuaded by the claims made by the dairy lobby that the consumption of oleomargarine caused dyspepsia and other health ailments.
Much earlier, New York State authorities had conducted a lengthy and costly investigation of the claim that margarine was nothing more than “filthy grease” and did not discover persuasive evidence of the harmful effects of consuming oleomargarine.
A Look in the Refrigerator
Today’s food industry gives consumers a variety of options in their search for a butter substitute. Hydrogenated vegetable oils are used to make some substitutes more spreadable. Some health-conscious Americans are concerned that the use of fully hydrogenated soybean oil increases the amount of saturated fat and ultimately the LDL (low-density lipoprotein) factor in the blood stream. So-called “real butter” brands, such as that made by Land O’ Lakes, can be found in supermarkets nationwide.
There are low-fat butters, organic butters made from avocado, olive or canola oil, and even vegan butter substitutes. One substitute, made from palm oil, is marketed under the “I can’t believe it’s not Butter!” label. I suppose that if you were a dairy farmer dependent upon the sale of the milk your cows produce, the marketing of these substitutes might be defined as a crime against butter.
I have just returned from a look in our refrigerator. I found several sticks of butter (unsalted sweet cream) and a tub of a spreadable substance made with olive oil and sea salt. They seem to co-exist peacefully. Perhaps the “butter wars” are over.
Illustrations, from above: Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, wikicommons; tax stamp for uncolored oleomargarine, wikicommons; Charles Willie mug shot, National Archives; the margarine squeeze, beachpackagingdesign.com; butter and alternatives, photo by Milton Sernett.